The lone scoreboard in Seattle's KeyArena looms high above mid-court, a quirk that created identical Edvard Munch scenes just hours apart there last Saturday. As Stanford and Gonzaga players gazed upward, the last seconds of their remarkable seasons melting away, their dread-filled looks gave the impression that the sky was falling. In a sense, it was—and not just in Seattle: On Sunday in Columbus, mighty Kentucky's players would wear the same masks of despair. Shattering a run of yawn-inducing chalk during the NCAA tournament's first round, the Cardinal, the Wildcats and the Bulldogs—the nation's top three teams in the latest AP poll—crashed against... Alabama, UAB and Nevada?
If your reaction was, Who are they? join the club. "There's room in the game for little guys," proclaimed second-year UAB coach Mike Anderson, whose diminutive, ninth-seeded Blazers blitzed Kentucky, the tournament's top overall seed, in a 76-75 thriller. Likewise, the eighth-seeded Crimson Tide's 70-67 upset of Stanford (the Phoenix region top seed) and the 10th-seeded Wolf Pack's 91-72 takedown of Gonzaga (the St. Louis second seed) brought a shocking end to the seasons of two teams thought to have the tools—size, depth, experience and perimeter punch—necessary to win it all.
Only once since the brackets were expanded to 64 teams in 1985 had two No. Is failed to survive the opening weekend (in 2000). These upsets were a reminder that the tournament can still be a capricious beast, or as ' Bama coach Mark Gottfried likes to call it, "the greatest show on earth. Everybody's got a chance." Alabama, UAB and WAC co-champion Nevada (the only double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16) made the most of their chances by exploiting their one advantage. "Our whole game plan was to use our quickness," said Nevada coach Trent Johnson. Sure enough, 6'9" Wolf Pack forward Kevinn Pinkney (20 points) and 6'6" Tide swingman Kennedy Winston (21 points) thoroughly unsettled their bigger, slower counterparts on the offensive end. Meanwhile, UAB's quick 5' II" guards, Mo Finley (17 points) and Carldell (Squeaky) Johnson, harassed Kentucky with so much full-court pressure that Anderson's mentor, former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, was beaming with pride afterward. "I told Mike when he became a head coach, Take this style with you wherever you go, and you'll win with it,' " Richardson said. "People don't like pressure."
Whatever works. It certainly didn't hurt the dragon-slayers that they had already met elite foes—Nevada in nonconference showdowns (a 93-79 loss at UConn and a 75-61 home upset of Kansas), UAB in Conference USA play and Alabama in the SEC. Indeed, Alabama's game-breaking second-half run on Saturday, which turned a 53-40 Stanford lead into a three-point deficit, didn't come out of nowhere. In its 72-68 overtime win at Arkansas on March 3, the Tide climbed out of a 22-point hole. "We just keep fighting," says 'Batna's senior point guard, Antoine Pettway. "Seeds and rankings don't mean anything in March."
No Tide player had a bigger influence last week than Pettway, the fast-talking former walk-on from Alberta, Ala. After last season's starting point guard, Mo Williams, left early for the NBA, skeptics in Tuscaloosa wondered if Pettway—who'd started only 10 games in three years—could handle the position. "I was hearing things in the paper: He can't run the point," the 6-foot Pettway recalls. "But I just took it as fuel." On Saturday, Pettway started his 31st straight game, and his three-pointer gave Alabama the lead for good at 55-53. "Pett has a big heart," says Tide guard Earnest Shelton.
Not that there's anything wrong with having NBA prospects, the best of whom in Seattle may have been—surprise—Nevada's Kirk Snyder. A 6'6" junior guard, Snyder torched Michigan State with 19 points in a 72-66 first-round upset and hit for 18 against Gonzaga, proving that the best players in the land aren't just the ones you see on national TV. Says Snyder, whose academic problems at Upland ( Calif.) High scared off most recruiters, "It's like nobody knows who you are your whole life, and you come out on the national stage and show everybody, Hey, I can play basketball. Here I am. Why didn't you guys see me before?"
Lack of recognition is nothing new for Nevada (n� Nevada-Reno), which is overshadowed by UNLV. "We want people to forget about Las Vegas and think about Reno for once," said Wolf Pack guard Todd Oke-son, whose 19 points and seven assists broke open the Gonzaga game. If Reno is the Biggest Little City in the World, one can only wonder what to call Weskan, Kans. (pop. 300), a blip of high-plains humanity where Todd's father, Darrel, farms corn, wheat, sunflowers and milo. "We ain't got a gas station. We ain't got a restaurant. We ain't got nuthin'," says Okeson, whose speech nevertheless sounds strangely urban, like John Travolta's in Pulp Fiction.
Then again, such jarring surprises seemed appropriate on a weekend when three teams with a combined 85-7 record fell to opponents that had piled up 29 losses among them. The tournament is a crap-shoot. When Alabama meets fifth-seeded Syracuse, there's little reason to think the Tide can't unseat the defending champion. The same holds true for UAB against fourth-seeded Kansas. As for the ascendant Wolf Pack, which will face Georgia Tech, Okeson knows exactly what to expect. "Nobody's going to pick us to win—again," he says. "It won't be nuthin' new for us, though. Just a few more people in the stands." And, for all three tournament upstarts, a few million new fans nationwide, holding their breath for the last Cinderellas still dancing.